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Lymphedema: Managing Lymphedema

Introduction

If you have had lymph nodes removed or have had radiation as part of cancer treatment, you can take steps to avoid lymphedema. If you already have lymphedema, you can take steps to keep it from getting worse.

  • Learn how to recognize infection and what you need to do every day to prevent it.
  • Learn how to exercise right to help the circulation in an arm or leg that is affected.
  • Learn how to protect an arm or leg that is affected.
  • Take good care of your skin and nails.
 

Lymphedema is fluid that builds up, usually in an arm or leg. It is often caused by surgery to remove lymph nodes during cancer treatment, especially breast cancer surgery, which can cause fluid to build up in the arm. It also can be caused by injury from a broken bone or surgery to fix a broken bone. Some medicines also can cause lymphedema. Some people get it for unknown reasons.

Test Your Knowledge

Lymphedema is often caused by:

  • An infection of the thyroid gland.
    This answer is incorrect.

    Lymphedema is the buildup of fluid, often in the arm or leg, that happens when lymph nodes in that area are removed or damaged.

  • Cancer surgery.
    This answer is correct.

    Lymphedema can happen when cancer treatment damages or removes lymph nodes. This happens most often with breast cancer, but it can also happen with other cancers, such as cancer of the testicles, cervical cancer, or skin cancer.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

The buildup of lymph fluid in an arm or leg can cause serious swelling and make it hard to use that limb. It also makes the limb more likely to get infected.

You need to work every day to help keep the fluid moving out of your arm or leg and to protect that arm or leg from injury and infection. Even a small infection can lead to serious lymphedema.

Lymphedema can occur a few days after surgery, radiation, or other injury, but it more often happens 1 to 2 years later. But it can also happen as many as 30 years later, so taking steps to prevent it or control it is a lifelong job.

Test Your Knowledge

If you have not had lymphedema within 6 months of surgery, you will not need to worry about getting it.

  • True.
    This answer is incorrect.

    Lymphedema may not show up until many years after surgery.

  • False.
    This answer is correct.

    Lymphedema may not show up until many years after surgery.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

Know the symptoms

Learn to recognize symptoms of lymphedema so that you can get treatment right away. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling as though your clothes, rings, or other jewelry are too tight.
  • A feeling of fullness in your arm or leg.
  • Less flexibility in your wrist, hand, or ankle.

Keep lymph fluid moving

Do all you can to help keep the lymph fluid moving so that it doesn't collect in your arm or leg.

  • Prop up your arm or leg on a pillow anytime you sit or lie down. Try to keep the limb above the level of your heart whenever you can.
  • Don't let anyone use a blood pressure cuff on your affected arm. If you are in the hospital, make sure that your nurse and other hospital staff know about your condition.
  • If your leg is affected, try not to cross your legs when you sit. Don't sit in one position longer than 30 minutes.
  • Keep your clothing loose around the limb that is affected. For example, don't wear shirts with elastic cuffs. Wear the right size panty hose and stockings. Don't wear garters or knee-high or thigh-high stockings.
  • Don't use heating pads on the area. And stay out of saunas and hot tubs. Heat may increase the blood flow and make swelling worse.
  • Be careful not to overuse your arm or leg right after your surgery. But check with your doctor to see when it is okay to exercise that part of your body.
  • Follow your doctor's advice about what daily exercises you should do. Exercises can help drain the lymph fluid.
  • See a physical therapist. He or she can teach you how to do special massages that can help move fluid out of your arm or leg. You also can learn what activities would be best for you.

Protect your arm or leg

Do all you can to protect your arm or leg from injury and infection.

  • Ask your doctor how to treat any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries that you may get.
  • Use sunscreen and insect repellent to protect your skin from sunburn and insect bites.
  • Protect your arm or leg from needle injections—no blood draws or shots, including chemotherapy. If you are in the hospital, make sure that your nurse and other hospital staff know about your condition.
  • Wear gloves when you garden or do other activities that may lead to cuts on your fingers and hands. Use a thimble when you sew.
  • Keep your feet clean, and wear clean socks or stockings every day.
  • Don't walk barefoot, especially outside.
  • Check your feet often for cuts, blisters, or signs of infection.
  • Take good care of your skin and nails. Use a mild soap that has a moisturizer, or use a moisturizer separately. Skin that is dry and cracked can get infected. Be careful when you clip your nails. Don't cut your cuticles.
  • Use an electric razor if you shave an arm or leg that is affected.
  • Call your doctor at the first sign of a rash or inflammation on your arm or leg.
  • Follow your doctor's advice about wearing a special bandage or compression garment. These specially fitted stockings or sleeves are designed to help keep fluid from pooling in the leg or arm.

Test Your Knowledge

You can help prevent lymphedema by moisturizing your skin.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Skin that is kept moisturized is less likely to crack and become infected. Even a small infection can cause serious problems.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Skin that is kept moisturized is less likely to crack and become infected. Even a small infection can cause serious problems.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to start working on preventing or managing lymphedema every day.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions, take this information with you when you visit your doctor.

If you would like more information on lymphedema, the following resources are available:

Organizations

American Cancer Society (ACS)
Phone: 1-800-ACS-2345 (1-800-227-2345)
Web Address: www.cancer.org
 

The American Cancer Society (ACS) conducts educational programs and offers many services to people with cancer and to their families. Staff at the toll-free number have information about services and activities in local areas and can provide referrals to local ACS divisions.



National Cancer Institute (NCI)
6116 Executive Boulevard
Suite 300
Bethesda, MD  20892-8322
Phone: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Web Address: www.cancer.gov (or https://livehelp.cancer.gov/app/chat/chat_launch for live help online)
 

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people who have cancer and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained staff members available to answer questions and send free publications. Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.



National Lymphedema Network (NLN)  
116 New Montgomery Street
Suite 235
San Francisco, CA 94105 
Phone: 1-800-541-3259 (hotline) or (415) 908-3681
Fax: (415) 908-3813
Web Address: www.lymphnet.org
 

The National Lymphedema Network (NLN) provides education and guidance to people with lymphedema and to health professionals and the general public. The NLN provides information on the prevention and management of primary and secondary lymphedema and supports research to find causes and treatments for lymphedema.



To learn more about lymphedema, see the topic:

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References

Other Works Consulted

  • National Cancer Institute (2011). Lymphedema PDQ—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/lymphedema/healthprofessional.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Douglas A. Stewart, MD - Medical Oncology
Last Revised June 28, 2013

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